Somebody from Mercedes-Benz must have seen Tom Cruise couch-jumping on Oprah. Everyone figured the G500 would die the instant this new 2007 Mercedes-Benz GL450 hit dealers. It sounded logical. The G500 began its life as a military vehicle four decades ago. No one in their right mind would choose it over the state-of-the-art GL450.
But the company has changed its mind. The G-wagen, the hippest squaremobile to ever roll up to a Scientology meeting, has been pardoned. Seems Mercedes has decided the supply of Hollywood sofa-stomping Kook DeVilles is large enough to justify a longer life for the G-Class.
And it's the right move. Bennifer, Brangelina and TomKat have all recently reproduced and we're pretty sure Jen, Angie and Kate aren't about to end up in US Weekly driving minivans. Not even minivans on dubs.
But what about you? Your obstetrician might not be in the African nation of Namibia, but you have done well for yourself and need an SUV to haul the kids around in. A full-size SUV with just the right combination of luxury, performance and features, but hold the bling.
According to Mercedes, there are a goodly number of folks just like you. Folks with growing families who would like to buy a Mercedes, only there hasn't been one large enough to suit your needs. Instead, Mercedes says you and your kind have been buying big domestic trucks like the Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator.
Enter the GL, the company's first full-size, seven-passenger SUV.
Plenty of competition
Limiting the GL's competition to the big boys from Detroit is foolhardy, however. The new Audi Q7 is sized and priced right on top of the Mercedes, and the Land Rover Range Rover might not seat seven, but it invented the segment and lives in the same tax bracket.
The GL450's base price is $54,000, which is about where M-B's smaller M-Class tops out. Our modestly optioned test vehicle wore the premium package for $4,500, the three-zone climate control package for $1,320, the sunroof package for $1,510 and the optional wood/leather steering wheel for $540. The triple-zone climate system could be lived without, but the other stuff seems essential in a top-of-the-line Mercedes SUV. The premium package, for instance, adds Parktronic, a Harman Kardon sound system, a navigation system, a power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, a hands-free communication system, satellite radio, a power tailgate and other essentials.
Still, at its $63,005 sticker price, this GL cost $3 grand less than the last Escalade we tested and $3 grand more than the last Q7 we sampled. The Range Rover starts at $75,000. That makes this GL quite a value story, although a loaded GL could touch $80 thou.
Real room for seven
At 200.3 inches long and 75.6 inches wide, the GL450 may be a bit smaller than the big Cad (the Audi Q7 is 200.2 inches long and 78.1 inches wide), but the Alabama-built Benz still delivers on the promise of space. First of all, it really does seat seven. The third row isn't exactly the great wide open, but two adults can fit back there without removing their legs. Second-row space is also generous, with the same 40 inches of legroom offered in the M-Class.
This should surprise no one. The GL is essentially an M-Class that's hit a growth spurt. Mercedes has added 11.8 inches of length and 6.4 inches more in the wheelbase, but the two trucks remain dimensional twins from their B-pillars forward. By and large, they also share most of their hardware, from their seats and dashboards to their seven-speed transmissions and 4Matic full-time all-wheel-drive systems. Most of this is also found in the six-passenger R-Class.
Though shy of class-leading, the GL's cargo volume is more than large enough for a family of over-packers. There are 14 cubic feet of space behind the third-row bench and 43.8 cubic feet when its third row is folded flat. The Escalade offers 17 cubic feet behind its third row and 60.3 cubic feet with it removed.
That's right, removed. While Mercedes has made a power-folding third-row seat standard on the GL, the Escalade owner needs to remember to lift with his legs as he removes the seats from his truck and hauls them into the garage.
Fold the GL's second-row seats and its maximum cargo volume is 83.3 cubic feet, quite a bit less than the Caddy's 108.9 cubic feet, but similar to the Audi's 88.7 cubic feet.
Less bling, more zing
So the Caddy is bigger. But it's also heavier and quite a bit slower.
Despite its small 4.7-liter V8, which makes 335 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 339 pound-feet of torque at 2,700 rpm, the GL450 is the muscle car of its class, sprinting to 60 mph in 6.7 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 15.1 seconds at more than 91 mph. We attribute that thrust to the tight gear spacing of its seven-speed transmission and the truck's feathery 5,249-pound curb weight.
The Cadillac, which weighs 5,665 pounds, packs a 403-hp, 6.0-liter V8, but takes 7.5 seconds to hit 60 mph and 15.8 seconds to complete the quarter-mile. The Audi, which is powered by a 350-hp, 4.2-liter V8, is even slower.
Around town the GL's V8 is faultless. The 32-valve engine is always smooth, always refined and always ready to head for its 6,400-rpm redline. Rumbles right, too.
In the city, the transmission is often in a higher gear than we would like, but it's easily fixed with a manual downshift. Out on the highway, however, it's geared perfectly, putting the engine at 2,400 rpm at 80 mph, which is right in its wheelhouse.
We recorded an average of 14.9 mpg in mixed driving, about what we expected for this class.
Turn, burn and climb
Our sparsely optioned GL arrived without the oversized-wheel-and-tire options. Instead of 19- or 20-inch-diameter rubber, both of which are available, our test truck rode on the standard 18-inch wheels and Continental tires. Although the smaller setup might not look as hip or hop, it works. This is a quiet truck on the highway. Tire noise is never an issue; neither is impact harshness, even over the roughest roads.
Some found the ride a bit wallowy, but the ride and handling compromise felt right to most. This isn't a truck you toss around for the sheer joy of it, but turn-in is quick, body roll is well controlled, and its steering, although a bit slow, is nicely weighted and never numb.
Its 59-mph slalom speed isn't anything to write home about, but it is better than the Escalade could do. And we suspect the Benz could run through the course even quicker if we could completely shut down its stability system.
The brakes are good, too, stopping the big Benz from 60 mph in just 126 feet with no fade. Too bad our test truck was suffering from a soft brake pedal. Felt like mush.
Although our tester was without the optional off-road package, which adds a low range to the all-wheel-drive system, it did climb a few cow-patty-covered grassy hills without any problem. Even with the height-adjustable suspension up on its tippy toes (it can be raised 3 inches), one ascent was steep enough for the trailer hitch to grab some earth, but the GL didn't seem to notice.
Sweet on the inside
There's no built-in bottle opener like there is in the R-Class, nor is the GL's interior as warm or artful as the Range Rover's indoors, but it is a well-appointed and comfortable place to be.
Fit and finish is as it should be, seat comfort is exceptional, the driving position is spot-on and headroom is abundant for all seven heads. Nice touches include a one-touch up and down function for all four windows (the Escalade had none), the fact that all five rear-seat headrests fold down flush with the tops of the seats so they don't block the driver's rearward vision when he's alone and we really like the skylight above the third row — helps fight off that cave feeling. Because our tester had the optional sunroof package, its rear-quarter windows could also be opened about an inch.
Third-row access is also well thought out. The second row is split 60/40, and the smaller section flips forward easily. Plus, the rear doors are long so you've got an extra-large hole to climb through.
Airbags number nine, including window curtains that span all three rows.
Late, but good
It's taken Mercedes a long while to enter the BigUV arena, but now it has done it, and done it right. After 10 days with the GL450, we found very little to complain about. This is a wonderful vehicle that does everything you would expect a Mercedes to do. There's just more of it.
Mercedes may have pardoned its G-Class, but if we were in the Escalade/Navigator business, it would be the GL450 keeping us up at night. It's so good even Brangelina should get one.
System Score: 8.0
Components: Our GL450 came equipped with the premium package, which includes an upgraded Harman Kardon Logic 7 audio system with rear-seat controls. It uses 11 speakers and has a 7.1-channel amplifier as well as Digital Dynamic Volume Control. Sirius Satellite Radio is available as an option, but is already included in the premium package. Standard on all GL450s is an iPod-specific connector that allows occupants to access music stored on their iPod via the GL's stereo controls. When the iPod is playing, the song title is shown on the display in the gauge cluster. A six-CD changer is also standard on all GL450s.
Performance: The sound is sharp, clear and free of distortion. There's plenty of deep bass, but we wish it were just a little punchier — it just doesn't have the kick we've experienced with other Harman systems. Still, the sound quality is excellent and appropriate for a vehicle of this caliber. Even audiophiles will be pleased. The best sound comes when the Logic 7 surround is turned on, but we found that turning that feature off enhanced some types of harder rock music, as it increases the sound presence.
The controls for the audio system are mostly intuitive, but there are too many buttons of the same shape, color and size. We like how Lexus uses a large and prominent rocker switch for CD track up/down and radio station adjustment. The GL450's setup looks cleaner, but isn't as user-friendly. On the other hand, we like how you can navigate radio stations one digit at a time (it doesn't default to the seek mode) and the display screen is big and easy to read.
It's great that the GL450 has a six-CD changer but the unit is mounted in the glovebox, which is less convenient than having it in the dash. However, the dedicated iPod connection more than makes up for the inconvenient CD-changer placement. If you buy an iPod and a GL450, it's possible you'll never listen to CDs again.
Best Feature: True iPod connectivity.
Worst Feature: Occasionally, unmarked hard buttons lead to confusion.
Conclusion: Like most Harman Kardon systems, the Logic 7 found in the GL450 sounds terrific. It doesn't have the deep level of customization as some other high-end systems, but most Mercedes owners will probably see that as a positive rather than a negative. — Brian Moody
Senior Features Editor Joanne Helperin says:
In designing its full-size luxury SUV on a unibody chassis, Mercedes has created a nearly ideal family vehicle. The GL450 features a complete array of safety technologies and carries seven on-road or off — without the minivan/wagon stigma. And unlike many full-size vehicles, the GL450 is no lumbering beast. It accelerated thrillingly and gripped the road like a performance car, albeit a large one. What more could you ask for?
Actually, just a little bit more. To be closer to perfect, the second-row seats would have to be spring-loaded, like those in the R-Class. It should also include Mercedes' leading-edge PreSafe system, which protects occupants by networking the active and passive safety systems. The European version already has it, but the U.S. version won't see PreSafe until next year at the earliest. (It could also stand more storage spaces, but now I'm picking.)
For a little more green, earthy families can equip the GL450 to tow or go off-road which, the company suggests, would be "those long drives to the cabin in the woods or to the horse show." (Ahem.) While the majority of GL450s probably won't be out exploring the wilds, you can bet your hinterteile this status-mobile will replace some of the Lexus LX 470s, Chevy Suburbans and minivans in the private-school carpool lines.
Inside Line Editor in Chief Richard Homan says:
Responding to the hyper-customized world of "His" and "Hers" personalization, Mercedes-Benz brings us the G-Class and the GL-Class full-size SUVs. His 2005 G-Class was an unapologetic boxy brute borne of military service and rugged tradition. Her 2007 GL450, on the other hand, is much more communal, flowing, lighter and utilitarian, with three rows of seats and enough interior room to house a three-ring circus. And the interior is so quiet, it's almost mute.
The GL's default suspension setting is ultrapliant at best and wallowy at worst. But it did have a way with potholes — it made them disappear. The 4.6-liter V8 would benefit from more aggressive programming of its partner, a seven-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel buttons for "manual"-style shifting.
In a perfect world, a vehicle's brakes feel and respond exactly like the ones in the new M-B S550 we tested in January — and that was the GL450's braking effect as described by Chris Walton in his excellent First Drive from the press trip. The GL SUV that we had at the office, however — the one that I drove last night — had horrific brakes, with a country mile of free play, mushy response and pedal feel that was the opposite end of "firm." Be sure to take your GL on a test-drive before you seal the deal. If the brakes feel like Chris describes them, buy it. If they don't, walk (run) away.